Our Artist Spotlight blogs are a weekly feature where we focus on one of our performers, giving you the chance to find out more about the people behind the performers, and offering an insight into the world of professional entertainment
I had no aspirations involving the music and entertainment industry. In the early sixties I was a (very young) hot shot banker determined to reach the top in international finance. Tea break in the staff room, chatting to a fellow fiscal slave – here’s the conversation –
‘Why don’t you come down the Queen’s Head tonight? There’s a folk night on with a very good guest American singer and Guitarist.’
‘Bah, no thanks! That folk music is all finger in the ear stuff.’
‘There are lots of girls there.’
‘What time does it start?’So I went. Couple of nice singers to start the evening off – then the guest, the young American – and the night that changed my life. He was over here trying his luck and working for just a few pounds a night. He sang all his own songs, his singing and guitar playing were brilliant, enthralling.
“I couldn’t play or sing but I knew I wanted a career in music. I have never experienced anything like that night – it was an epiphany. I went to the music shop the next day and bought a guitar and a book on how to play. Started singing as well – and written songs”
Practiced before I went to work, drove out to a park in the lunchtime and practiced in the car (I got very thin) – practiced when I got home. I was a very anti-social pain in the a**e I think. I was on a mission, the girl friend got dumped and the voice got hoarse whilst the fingers got sore from the constant practice. But I did learn how to play and so many people helped me along the way. In those days most people seemed to have the time to show you how they got their particular sound from a guitar. Got playing together with a couple of friends, nice harmonies, always out to entertain and have good fun – and the gigs rolled in. The bank got the bullet! Oh, the name of that young American? Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel.I had no formal training but a long apprenticeship, learning by the seat of the pants. Later, having already had a song that I had written in the charts and a fairly lengthy professional career a kindly bandleader on a cruise ship taught me how to read music. It has been a big advantage in communication and understanding and I wish I’d done it earlier. I went on to do a music diploma which has helped me in getting the work in schools where I do workshops on traditional London music and history.
My favourite thing about performing in the events industry is the variation, the breadth of experience and the vibrancy of the events industry that is at the core of my love of the work. One day on a Thames river boat, next nigh meeting and greeting Americans at the Dorchester, following day at the Excel Centre performing a rhyming slang ditty which I was commissioned to write for Cisco Systems.
the event and entertainment business? Go to a seaside funfair. Take the rollercoaster; follow that with a pleasant predictable promenade along the seafront. Which suits you best? If you prefer the promenade this is not the business for you, but if it’s the rollercoaster, well, dump the girl/boy friend and start practicing! You may of course have an understanding and loving partner who backs you all the way. If so – wonderful, they are going to need all that love and understanding
“And one small tip, if you are a music act when you do the sound check, do your very best number. It’s probably going to be the first time the client has heard you live and first impressions…”
My best event (so far) for Contraband was at a club in EastLondon. Just me and the Pearly Queen on this one. It was the day of the Royal wedding and the carnival atmosphere was all over London. The façade of the club was rather ordinary – but once you got inside – Wow! It was like the Tardis – and such charming people. We played mostly up on the rooftop garden where there was a swimming pool. It was a beautiful day and we felt as if we were on a cruise ship or in California and the people were so receptive. They treated us like royalty! You don’t often see the Lambeth Walk being done around a swimming pool. Great day.I had so many great experiences but here’s one from just a couple of weeks ago. We were working with our pianists at a little club in south east-london. They had put on a special afternoon for Remembrance Sunday. We were asked to perform mainly songs from the 1940’s and World War II. We finished on the beautiful and evocative ‘Ill be Seeing You’. Just after we finished a lady came up to me – she was streaming tears. She hugged me and said
‘I last heard that song at a dance in 1942 when my husband was leaving to fight in the Far East.’ I loved him so much. Like so many, he never came back, but hearing that song made me remember the love and the times we had together.’ It’s a good job I didn’t have to sing another song because by this time she was not the only one crying. These sorts of things make the long nights on the motorway and the rain shower that always seem to start just as you are loading in the gear – so worthwhile.
The worst experience was some time ago. It was at the Guildhall in Portsmouth. I still shiver when I see that place. It seemed like such a simple gig – just 45 minutes at 7.30 as a warm up to a comedian. Sounds OK doesn’t it? We got there in the middle of the afternoon and there seemed to be a lot of technicians around for a small show. We got our stuff in and one of the sound engineers asked – ‘When are the others coming?’ This was the first sign that something was seriously wrong. ‘Who is headlining tonight?’ I asked. Chuck Berry! Rock ‘n Roll megastar. An audience of rockers, bikers and possibly body builders to be warmed up by the Pearly King and Queen! The tour manager was in a state of extreme panic. The agent had muddled the dates. There was no support act available. He asked us if we would do it although we were patently in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of our own. I asked him if they were still going to pay us so long as we did the time. He said ‘of course’. And of course we said yes – never let anyone down. At 42 minutes in (yes we were counting) we were singing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ when the audience finally decided to show their displeasure at not being entertained by the Buddy Holly style band they’d been promised, and charged the stage. Security restrained them and we did the Holly classic ‘That’ll be the Day’ to make up the final 3 minutes. Out of character but sometimes it’s safer to give the audience what they want. The tour manager shook our hands as we left the stage – but in less than 6 minutes we were changed, my guitar was in its case and we were driving away. The fastest I’ve ever been away from a venue!
To get my inspiration for my act I always try to watch other performers every chance I get. Not to plagiarise their act but to stimulate the imagination and there is always something to be learned. This was great when working on cruise ships. One particular cabaret act was a very ordinary singer but he started his act with a triple cartwheel which took him right to the front row of the audience where he shook their hands before he started singing. What a great way to start an act! The audience loved him. I’m not doing the triple cartwheel – but I do go out and shake hands during the first number.
“My band would say that I don’t do the triple cartwheel because I am too worried about the money falling out of my pocket…”
Other performers I admire are many and diverse. As a musician – it’s still Paul Simon, he still weaves his magic, writing his great songs and maintaining a career over so many years. Others, well it’s the one’s who are so imaginative in building and delivering their characters to the audience. Peter Kay is just great at doing this – and he would never be content to sit on his laurels but constantly develops new ideas. Victoria Wood is another one – I like her because she plays the piano too!Fitting your social life around the work is easy. You just can’t have a social life! Well you can but not a predictable one. People tend to go out and have parties, meet up, mingle – at the weekend. If you’ve got a successful act then you are going to be out playing at those parties. Friends and family need to be understanding. I never book time out for family weddings, birthdays etc, it can create pressure but you just have to ride it. All the restaurants are packed on Saturdays – we go out on Monday evenings, you can sit anywhere you want – and you can park. I do practice what I preach, got married on a Wednesday so that I could do the gigs at the weekend. People are generally much more understanding about the way that work can interfere with the ability to go to family parties and celebrations than they used to be. The 9 to 5 job is not the norm that it used to be, it’s much more a 24/7 society and people need to work to service that situation, but the unpredictability of the entertainment industry still makes it different from most other jobs.
The one thing that I would change about the events industry would be to have an accepted trade body of the nature of the Entertainment Agents Association. You see the emblem of the association and as both client and performer you can have confidence in their standards.
“Most event companies are great and Contraband are the best (yes they really are) – but there are a minority that don’t step up. This might help to eradicate them”
Well it’s been a long career from Paul Simon to Pearly King but I’m planning to turn my act into a national brand name. I’m on my way, that ad for Tesco helped but there is still much to be done. And I’m still on that rollercoaster…